Discovering The Hidden Treasures of the Martial Arts

Written by Gavin King. Posted in Articles by Gavin King, Blog, Shi Kon Classics

jizerka2008This was a review of my first Shi Kon Czech Summer Course in 2008 written for the Martial Arts Standards magazine.  Returning from Czech I closed down my own club and devoted myself to studying Tai Chi, meditation and Kung Fu.  It’s amazing to think that this was just five years ago and was an experience that changed the entire direction of my life!

I hope you enjoy it!

Gavin King

Day 1

In the 16th century people came to the Jizera mountains in search of precious gems.  It seems rather fitting that 400 years later I’d be making the same journey up to the mountain village of Jizerka, some 1000m above sea level, in search of the jewels contained within the Martial Arts.  The Jizera mountains are said to be amongst the oldest in the world, and the primitive and timeless energy of the place made it feel like the perfect location to transmit the ancient wisdom contained within the fighting traditions of the East.

Our first training location for the week was an immense stone building called Sklárna.  Sklárna was first built as a glassworks in 1866, but had recently been renovated and converted into a huge gymnasium.

Sifu Steve Rowe took the first session and formally opened the course.  He explained that over the course of the week we would be exploring the universal principles that power all Martial Arts.  The course would focus on the essential qualities that form the foundation of natural body movement and we would explore how to train and nurture these qualities.

One of the first things I was taken by was the sheer attendance on the course.  I was accompanied by over a hundred fellow Martial Artists hailing from Czech, Denmark and the UK.  Despite the obvious language barrier, aided by a translator, Steve managed to communicate with everyone to a level that they not only understood the content but also enthusiastically compiled reams of notes on it.

Steve started off by presenting what he called the ‘Internal System’.  This is the internal structure that frames all movement within the Martial Arts, or at least should do.  I’ve heard many fantastic and bold claims about body structure and alignment and virtually every Martial Artist is aware that it is an essential quality to master, but most are extremely vague about how to actually go about achieving it.  Over the course of the first session we were presented with a systematic and logical explanation of exactly how to achieve a ‘connected’ body.

Quoting the Tai Chi classics, Steve explained that we have five bows, four arches and four pumps.  When these are in place we are able to move naturally, powerfully and smoothly in every action we perform.  He elaborated saying that when the internal structure is in place we are able to send and receive power from any point in our body, be it from the front, back, left, right, upper and lower.  When framed properly we are able to deal with an attack from any angle.  I remember first hearing this claim and thinking it seemed a rather bold statement to make.  Over the course of the week though, not only did we have many opportunities to field test this theory, but we were also systematically shown how to develop the skills needed to achieve these seemingly extraordinary abilities.

The rest of the morning was spent showing us how to form the arches and bows of the body that make it possible for us to access the pumps to develop the power of internal Martial Arts.  Surprisingly though Steve didn’t once mention the word ‘chi’ or any other abstract eastern term, instead he used western language and concepts that we were all familiar and comfortable with.  We were shown how forming the ‘bows’ of the arms, legs and spine supported the ‘arches’ at the groin and armpits.  Steve and the other Instructors moved around the class and adjusted our postures allowing us to access the powerful muscles of the quads, back and core.  With the bows and arches in place and the muscles engaged we were shown how to use them via the ‘pumps’ in the feet, back and neck.  More important than being shown them, was actually being able to feel and become aware of the correct alignment to access the internal structure.  For what seemed like a gentle non-physical session I was sweating and my arms were absolutely killing me.

After lunch in the afternoon session, Steve continued his presentation on structure and body alignment.  He explained that entire system of Tai Chi only has two base body shapes, Yin and Yang.  Again, like the Internal System, this is a concept I’ve heard mentioned many times in the past, often using very flowery language, but Steve presented a totally practical lesson using concrete, simple explanations.  Like the morning session, we were shown what it actually feels like to have Yin and Yang shapes in the body.  With a few tweaks from the wandering Instructors we all had a definite physical point of reference for both the Yin and Yang body structures.

We then looked how we move between Yin and Yang using the internal system that we’d covered in the morning session.  When correctly framed in either a Yin or Yang body shape we started to see how it is possible to direct any force coming into contact with our bodies directly down to the feet.  Over the week this ability would prove to be an essential combative skill, but for now the emphasis was simply on learning how to structure the body.  To cement the concepts from the day’s lesson into our heads and give us a vehicle to train the principles, Steve showed us a version of the Kata Sanchin (Sammchin in Chinese)  that focused on the switch between Yin and Yang in the body.

By the end of the day my body was aching and I was feeling quite overwhelmed with the amount of information that had been thrown at us.  I was impressed with the systematic and practical manner in which the lesson had been shared, but still felt it was a hell of a lot of stuff to take in on one sitting, however Steve assured us that the day’s topics would form the basis of the whole weeks teaching.

He also added an interesting idea that I’d not really considered before.  Steve said that it is impossible to hold onto a thought as they are transient in nature.  He said what we need to do is keep reintroducing the thought over and over again in our heads for it to be absorbed.  This he explained was the purpose of taking notes.  It’s a topic I’ve discussed with Steve numerous times and have discovered that I’m notoriously poor at note taking.  It dawned on me that Kata and Form are merely a series of ‘notes’ that continually reintroduce thoughts back into our minds, and thinking of the entire days insights, of which there were plenty, being contained shorthand in the Sanchin Kata made the whole thing far more digestible.  Using Kata as a living notebook gave it far more meaning and purpose than I’d ever given it credit for.

Day 2

The next morning my alarm rudely awoke me at 6.30am, which was actually 5.30 in the UK time my body was still operating on.  I sleepily staggered out to the front of our hotel to be hit by the invigorating crisp mountain air which immediately energized better than a double espresso ever could.  At home I’m often ridiculed for training at ‘ungodly’ hours, so you’ll imagine my surprise when I noticed that practically everyone in my hotel was outside ready for a ‘voluntary’ training session.  We started off with the Yang qigong exercises before moving into the Yang Chen Fu 108 Long Form and then the more experienced practitioners went through the Long Boxing form under the tutelage of Sifu Martin Gatter.

All of my previous experience of Tai Chi has been a pretty solitary affair through private lessons with Steve Rowe and practicing on my own at home.  I had great difficulty trying to adjust to the tempo of performing within a group.  I found myself very self conscious because I was surrounded by far more experienced practitioners.  Having barely finished the Long Form I’m still not overly familiar with the sequences and trying to keep up whilst secretly noting all the subtitles in the movements of my seniors left me a little overwhelmed.  I have to say though, the group dynamic and energy is actually quite addictive and I felt my form had improved simply by being part of the ‘experience’.

After breakfast the weather was dry so we assembled in the large field behind the hotel for the first of the days training sessions.  The group was split in two with half of us being taught by Shihan Chris Rowen who was sharing his art of Goju Ryu and the other half studying Tai Chi with Sifu Martin Gatter.  I was part of the morning Goju group.

Chris started off by taking us through a traditional Goju warm up to prepare our bodies for the training.  After that I was called out to be Chris’s ‘uke’.  This came as no surprise as during the dinner the night before my darling Sifu, Mr Rowe, who very kindly (and  somewhat inaccurately) informed Chris that I’d made some derogatory remarks about the effectiveness of Goju Ryu.  Much to Mr Rowe’s delight I received a very ‘hands on’ initiation into the art of Goju Ryu.  Chris kicked the session off by showing us the intricacies of the strike Teisho (Palm Heel).

Building on the previous days training Chris explained the Goju principles of Sink, Swallow, Float and Spit and demonstrated them using Teisho.  So that I could feel the strike Chris had me hold up one hand as a target, and reinforce it using the other.  With an effortless flick of his body he delivered a shocking hit that went through my arms and jolted my whole body.  He then demonstrated a few targets on the body using lighter taps around various points on my body that still managed to give me a fairly concrete idea of how much damage could be caused if Chris had really decided to ramp up the intensity.  The penetration that Chris achieved with very light loose touches was quite scary.

A major thing that I did experience during the session was the sheer level of humility Chris has as a Martial Artist.  I’ve seen many Instructors mercilessly beat students during demos with the simple aim of making a good show to please a crowd and feather their egos.  Chris was very quick to point out that he only gives people a taste for a strike that anyone could replicate, and it didn’t take too long for the whole group to able to do just that.

After learning to use Teisho to hit off a straight line Chris then showed us how to put a ‘spiral’ into the shot.  Off a spiral the Teisho really started to bite.  Looking at my hand after a shot from Chris I noticed I had spiral scuff marks in my palm.  After covering a few other strikes all of our hands and arms were starting to throb.  Chris took a moment show us a few simple hand exercises and stretches which remarkably left our hands feeling great.  If anything, I think my hands actually felt better than they did before the session.

After the striking drills we then looked at how they fitted into the flow of combat.  Chris explained the importance of distance and timing when attacking and defending.  We also looked at disruption and distraction tactics to break our opponents distance and timing.  I particularly enjoyed this section as it put a few techniques that I’d previously considered fairly ineffective, into a new perspective.  One particular point was how to attack the hands and fingers as a preemptive tactic.  Using a few of the strikes we’d been working on earlier in the session, Chris showed us how to target the hands and fingers as a set up.  Previously I’d only seen these tactics used in isolation, but Chris demonstrated where they fitted into the fight by creating that split second distraction to enter in on the opponent and set up devastating follow up opportunities.

We concluded the session by taking notes and just reviewing the concepts we’d covered in the lesson.  What I found interesting about the lesson was how Chris managed to teach and build upon exactly the same lessons Steve had covered in the previous days training, despite coming from a completely different martial background.  Both expressed the same core ideas but used different vehicles to transmit the information, proving that martial skill should transcend style and illustrating the importance of following a true principle based system.

In the afternoon session the groups swapped round and my group was under the charge of Sifu Martin Gatter.  This session is a tricky one for me to write up as it was on a skill I don’t yet have, that of P’eng (pronounced ‘Pung’).  Martin said that the Chinese very cleverly used the word P’eng as using English we would have to clumsily say something like, “expanding the joints by bowing the bows and arching the arches without excessive tension.”

Martin explained that P’eng is the principle of expansion and that when we Push Hands using it we don’t actually ‘push’ to expand.  To show us Martin used the classic Tai Chi demonstration where his training partner was sent flying backwards about ten feet whilst Martin didn’t move an inch.  It’s these sorts of demonstrations that have become almost party pieces used by Tai Chi masters to show off their skill.  Martin very humbly, and rather quickly, pointed out that he hadn’t actually pushed at all.  All he’d done was managed to put his structure in place before his partner had managed to get a firm footing to push from.  Nothing mystical, the other guy just literally pushed himself off of Martin.  Could it really be that simple?

To show us how to find this skill Martin had us perform a drill called ‘Springing Hands’.  This is a partner drill where you work off a push from your partner to train a specific concept.  When working on P’eng the idea is that your partner should bounce themselves off of you.  Martin said P’eng is like a balloon, the more you push into it the more it pushes back.  This drill really highlighted the importance of correct body structure and showed a distinct lack of any on my part.  On my first attempt at pushing my arms completely collapsed as the force from my push was fed back on me.  In my second attempt I tried to muscle through the push and my arms collapsed even quicker.

This lesson was proving highly frustrating which made me more tense and stiff as the lesson progressed.  Towards the end I paired up with one of Steve’s senior students Marilyn.  I have a considerable weight and strength advantage over Marilyn which I was about find out meant ‘diddly squat’ in the Tai Chi world.  I’ve only pushed with a few real Tai Chi people who’ve been able to better me, but they’ve all been bigger than me, making it easy to dismiss it as a size advantage.  Against Marilyn though, I could neither break nor hold her push and as size and strength was my advantage I couldn’t dismiss it as anything other than pure skill.  I now had first hand experience of the old Martial Arts cliché that skill can beat strength, and it was quite a humbling experience.

Martin’s lesson of P’eng brought up a whole mixed bag of emotions in me.  Part of me was embarrassed at being bested by a smaller weaker opponent, part felt a sense of frustration at my lack of skill, but mostly I felt a quiet sense of awe and excitement, knowing that I’d just experienced a glimpse of the gems that had brought me to Tai Chi in the first place.

Day 3

The next morning I actually woke up before the alarm and found myself wide awake and raring to go.  During the pre-breakfast session I felt more comfortable working through the form and exercises with the group.  I think part of me yesterday was desperately trying not to look a prat during the form, but after spending a couple of days with the Shi Kon guys they’d made me feel so welcome I really felt like part of the group.  In fact if anything, I’d say that I actually enjoyed training with the group better than I do solo, and for me, being a staunch loner, that is quite a weird experience.

Once we munched through breakfast and washed it down with a coffee we headed back to the big hall in Sklárna.  Steve took this session and said that we would be looking at some of the Yang Family qigong exercises and how they relate to the myofascial meridians that run throughout the body.

Firstly Steve explained that the qigong exercises all contained fundamental martial skills.  Each one systematically worked through different parts of the body teaching us how to use the internal system and that the qigong exercises are strung together continuously in the form.

As he’d done on the first days training Steve refrained from using esoteric and abstract language to explain how the qigong worked.  Instead he gave a brief talk on ‘Myofascial Meridians’.  Being a Shiatsu practitioner and an avid bodyworker the myofascial system is something very close to my heart.  Steve explained that our whole body is covered in a connective tissue called fascia.  It forms a weblike net that envelopes every organ and muscle in our bodies and holds everything in place.  The Myofascial Meridians are lines of connective tissue that run through the body forming lines of pull that are represented by chains of muscle and fascia connecting every part of our body.

In bodywork we use the Myofascial Meridians to understand why tension in one part of the body can manifest in issues with a seemingly unrelated area.  Steve uses them to explain how and why we move the body in such a specific manner.  For example, Steve provided a quite in-depth explanation of why head movement has a crucial link with that of the feet.  Using the Myofascial Meridians Steve explained how the movements of Tai Chi engage and activate the core muscles of the body.  We then used the Qigong to find out how to ‘empty’ the leg to kick or step using the psoas muscle and engage this muscle initially using our head.

Then Steve returned to the nature of Yin and Yang within Tai Chi explaining that Yin and Yang represent a continuous state of movement.  He showed us that when we tense too much our structure is stiff and rigid which will snap when any force is applied to it.  Next we saw that when our structure is too loose and weak we simply collapse because its lack of structure.  Steve explained that when we are rigid or too flaccid that there is no movement and that all he sees is ‘death’.  This seemed a little dramatic at first to me but Steve elaborated explaining that many people practice Martial Arts that are lifeless and dead as they are constantly ‘stopping and starting’, where true Martial Arts are dynamic, fluid and ‘animated’.  Anything that lacks movement, lacks life, is neither Yin nor Yang.

Steve continued by explaining that the whole philosophy of Tai Chi revolves around continuous motion transitioning between yin and yang states.  Usually this is where things start to get far too philosophical for most people and again Steve purposefully avoided any ‘new age’ terminology.  He explained that inertia is the principle enemy of the Martial Artist.  If we tense up when we’re attacked we have two options, and both result in a lack of animation.  Our first option is to tense up even more, but there is only a finite point to how ‘hard’ we can become, after that point something has to give and we find ourselves with the only other course of action which is to collapse.  Once we reach that point we become sitting ducks, dead in the water and open to attack.

We then looked at how, when done properly, there is actually no tension in Tai Chi, merely a state of continuous flexion.  Steve explained that when we have reached the limit of our ability to flex, we tense and demonstrated by switching between yin and yang body shapes we can maintain a state of flexion indefinitely.  The key phrase was, “our flex needs to be a state of flux” meaning that spiraling between yin and yang states, we can continuously access the internal system of the body and will always have somewhere to move and power to send there.

The session was concluded by examining how the Tai Chi philosophy is actually born out of the natural movements of the universe.  Steve quoted the late great philosopher Alan Watts by saying that most people believe that when they are born they “come into this world” which makes them feel that they are something separate from the universe.  This leads them to believe that they are in conflict with the universe, viewing it as something that needs to be conquered.  In his lectures Alan Watts had a very different take, that Steve said exemplifies Tai Chi philosophy perfectly, by saying that we “come out of this world”.  With this in mind we view ourselves as products of the universe, not enemies of it, again quoting Alan Watts Steve said, “just as an apple tree ‘apples’ the world ‘peoples’” meaning that not only are we part of the universe, but that our very existence is dependent upon it being able to provide an environment to support us.

Relating this back to Tai Chi, Steve said that we don’t ‘do’ the universe, the universe ‘does’ us.  Quoting Alan Watts again (and causing our Czech translators a few problems) Steve said, “we are apertures through which the universe observes and experiences itself.”  In the same way, Steve said that we don’t ‘do’ Tai Chi, Tai Chi does us.  As philosophical as this sounds it was an entirely practical lesson, and one that most of us are acutely aware of, the more we try and force something the harder it usually becomes.  Pushing something that doesn’t want to go creates conflict and causes tension.  Steve concluded by saying this isn’t just the way of Tai Chi, but that of life and the universe itself.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I walked out of the session with my head swimming, and I said to one of my fellow students, “how the hell am I going to write that session up????”  Even looking back over my volumes of notes from that session I haven’t written more than a fraction of it.  We covered everything from human physiology to underlying philosophy of the universe….it was quite a lesson.

Lunch was much needed as we were all still ‘processing’ from the morning session.  When we returned Steve started by going back through the Yin Yang Sanchin we had learned earlier in the week.  He reminded us briefly of the internal system of bows, arches and pumps with the added concept of ‘spiraling’.  Steve linked back to the mornings lesson on myofascial meridians explaining when the internal structure is in place that any force from any contact point the body can be channeled to the feet via a correctly aligned body.

Steve explained that to be able to ‘spiral’ requires a change in our mindset.  He explained that most people think in straight lines, meaning that they believe they can be strong in one direction at a time.  This thinking drastically affects how we use our physiology and means we can only ever hold off attacks from one angle at a time.  He continued saying that in order to able to work in spirals we need to be able to think in spirals, emphasising the importance our mental state has on our physical performance.  To be honest, spiraling is something I just don’t get.  I understand the importance and interaction of our mind and body, but thinking in spirals and using my muscles in spirals seemed, well, rather idyllic.  To say I was skeptical would be an understatement.

As was becoming the general theme for the week, nothing was taught that could not be practically demonstrated and felt.  Steve has often stated that he doesn’t believe anything; he only knows what he feels.  One of my favorite sayings is “who feels it, knows it!”

Steve introduced the concept of “testing’ our structure.  We took our stance, arched the arches, bowed the bows, pumped the pumps and ‘tried’ to spiral from the feet.  Then our partners would lightly introduce pushes from random points on our bodies to see if we could resist the push.  To my absolute astonishment I was actually adjusting my body structure to channel the push to my feet.  With a little correction I actually managed to hold off every touch to my body, and even felt them spiraling to my feet.  With my usual calm and centered manner I said to my training partner “oh my golly gosh, one is never going to move from this position again!” or at least words to that effect.  I cannot describe how ecstatic I was feeling and knew full well that the moment I moved – I’d lose it.  Alas I did have to move, but using simple little exercise of testing our structure I was able to experience absolutely everything that we had been covering on the course.  It was a massive ‘click’ moment that left me literally shaking with excitement.

What we had just experienced Steve explained was ‘chap sau’.  Chap sau is the physical transmission of knowledge.  Gently and mindfully introducing pushes from every angle gives our body the opportunity to adjust itself so that it can channel the force down to the feet.  This exercise allows you to directly experience and feel the weaknesses within the body structure and actively learn how build it to deal with the energy.  Steve also added an additional gem by saying that in every Tai Chi exercise everyone should be learning.  The person applying the push subtlety and sensitively becomes aware of their partners structure.  Although in this drill we use this sensitivity to help our partner build their structure, it is very easy to imagine how this ability could be used to break it by applying the force more intensely.

Steve concluded on a philosophical note saying that it was through our sensitivity and awareness that we can heal.  It was also through our sensitivity and awareness that we have the ability harm and kill, it was merely a matter of how we apply ourselves.  This he said was the ultimate reality of yin and yang.

Today’s session was amazing.  I’ve been reading and studying Zen and eastern philosophy from a very early age; probably from around the same time I started to become obsessed with the fighting arts.  More recently, through my study of Shiatsu, I’ve developed a thirst for the understanding of what makes the human condition tick.  In one foul swoop Steve linked together my passions for philosophy, Martial Arts and bodywork into one complete whole.  As dramatic as it sounds, every aspect of my life seemed to click purposefully and perfectly into place.  My only disappointment was that within what had seen like a blink we were already halfway through the course!

Day 4

Awaking on the forth day I felt totally immersed in the Martial Arts.  Chatting over breakfast    a few of us remarked that we could quite happily spend the rest of our days up in the mountains studying the depths of the fighting arts.  I hadn’t yet spoken to anyone who wasn’t literally buzzing about their training.

In the morning session we were back in the field and the weather was glorious.   I decided to attend the MMA session being taught by Adam Lawrie, who manages the Shi Kon Honbu in Chatham, Kent.  This session I was particularly looking forward to because it was much more in my comfort zone and I also share Adam’s love of grappling and clinch work.

To start off Adam gave us a few free flowing boxing drills to help us work on our guard and footwork.  He demonstrated how the body structure we’d learnt through the Yin Yang Sanchin provided the foundations of a strong mobile stance.  We learnt the importance of moving from the waist and keeping it mobile utilizing the ‘float’ principle.

Adam then showed us how to enter in for a clinch from punching by working off a spiral.  To make this an intuitive skill we covered a few wrestling style pummeling drills using the internal system to power the movements.  We also looked at using under hooks, over hooks and neck ties with Adam constantly linking back to the principles learnt through Sanchin.

We then moved on to takedowns and how to get there.  First we looked at takedowns working off punches and then from pummeling giving us a chance to learn how to get the takedown dynamically at different ranges.

From Takedowns we moved into using the internal structure to hold guard on our backs by remaining ‘connected’ and also looked at how to use our structure to break an opponents guard.   We covered various methods for passing guard and finished off by looking at a few submissions to conclude the session.

I really enjoyed Adam’s session, it was high energy and a lot easier on the grey matter than some of the other sessions during the week.  It gave us a great opportunity to see how the principles learnt through kata and form fit into a practical very physical arena.  Adam showed us exactly how the principles of the traditional arts fit into what are perceived to be modern inventions.  To me this showed how timeless the information contained in the arts is and how much re-inventing of the wheel is happening in the fighting arts today.  The most valuable thing I took away from this was how my Tai Chi actually fits into and powers everything I do, and conversely how everything I do in all my training is reflected Tai Chi.  It was a very enjoyable session.

Shihan Chris Rowen took the afternoon session and shared the Goju Kata Shisochin with the group.  For me this was the first time I’ve formally practiced a Karate kata in about four years and god knows how long since I’d actually learned a new one.  Having had the pleasure of speaking with Chris throughout the week I was very interested in seeing his approach to kata.

To start off we walked through the kata following Chris’s lead and then we went through it on our own, section by section.  All the way through Chris showed us these seemingly simple little intricacies.  It has many level changes, specific flows and evasive footwork for creating and closing distance.

After we all had a fair idea of the sequence Chris started adding timing to the Kata and showing us why sections are paced in the manner they are.  In order to do this he needed an uke, and Chris kept the group (who all knew I’d be picked) in an amused state of suspense before he eventually called me forwards.  Mr Rowe was still up to his usual tricks probably!

Chris explained the subtle grappling elements in Shisochin which included breaks, locks and throws.  Also included is some particularly nasty grabs to fleshy parts of the body, which I can definitely confirm Chris is rather adept at seizing hold of.  With a smile and bow Chris kindly left me in one piece so that I could play with applications contained in the Kata.

Building on his previous lesson he also showed the distraction and disruption strategies taught within Shisochin.  Some of the techniques for setting up a few of the nasty breaks contained in the kata were particularly effective.  Also we had a chance to see how to make use of some of the more complex footwork contained within it, which once explained, was actually very simple.  Throughout the session Chris continually showed how dynamic and alive kata can be and also how to unlock the martial wisdom it contains.

To conclude Chris quickly explained that there are four different ways that Kata can be performed; Ju Ho which is softly, Sado Ho which is with tension at the end of the technique, Go Ho was with tension all the way through and finally Go Ju which was hard and soft.  He explained that each method conveys and trains different aspects of the Kata, and again highlighted the multidimensional nature of Kata and Form.

Today’s training was a lot more physical than that of the previous days which was a welcome contrast being lighter on the head and heavier on the body.  We had the opportunity to put some of the principles we’d been studying into action.  This gave them a much greater reality.  I could see and feel exactly why these concepts needed to be in place, and also the relevance the form and kata have for training them.  As ghastly as some may find it to hear, I really was looking forward to practicing form in the morning.  Having taken my new found structure out for a test drive I’d noticed areas that needed attention, and thanks to the instruction I’d received thus far, I now had a vehicle to train them.  It was another very valuable days training.

Day 5

The next day after the mornings Tai Chi and breakfast we were back in the big hall for Steve’s final day of teaching for the course.  Today he told us that we would be pulling together all the insights into Tai Chi and seeing how they fit into actual combat.  To me, this is the area of Tai Chi that is so poorly represented and a big reason why so many disregard it as a valid form of self protection.  Throughout the week we’d seen how to build a strong structure, send energy down to the feet and many different ways of training and testing the internal system, today we’d be putting it all together into the perspective of the fight.

To start off Steve, Adam and Marilyn gave a demonstration of Tai Chi Wall training.  This is basically a partner drill where one side is flung into a wall with the other providing the force to get there.  Firstly Steve demonstrated by putting Marilyn into the wall with an almighty thud and she simply bounced off the wall at quite a speed only to come flying straight back into Steve, who pushed her again.  If you think of the way a boxer bounces off the ropes, that’s exactly how Marilyn was coming off a solid concrete wall.  Steve explained that the point of the training was to teach the receiver to absorb the push and impact of hitting the wall whilst still maintaining their balance and control.  It is also one of the methods used in Tai Chi to condition the practitioner to learn how to handle adrenaline.  He said that when you land against the wall you get a small controlled burst of adrenaline and that as the intensity increases so does the practitioners ability to handle the higher levels released.

Marilyn came off the wall with a beaming smile saying that she felt great.  Looking round the room I think there were a few terrified faces as Marilyn looked like she nearly went through the wall a couple of times.  Steve explained that actually when the skill has been developed it actually feels fantastic to be thrown against the wall and that it is only if you tense up that the wall training hurts.  He likened it to break falling saying that at first you go slowly and then build up the intensity progressively.  At first your partner pushes so that you are able to land cleanly on the wall to bounce back, but as the skill improves you are pushed at awkward angles that force you to correct your position ‘mid-flight’.  Adam stepped up to the plate to demonstrate and Steve begun to send Adam into the wall at what looked like a ferocious pace.

This was the first time I’d seen wall training in its entirety and it was rather intimidating.  The crash coming off the wall echoed through the hall.  Adam’s eyes were like laser beams when he bounced off the wall and the force with which he was coming off of Steve with was frightening.  What I found most impressive was how Steve was literally bouncing him off every part of his body, his stomach, chest, arm and shoulders with what looked like total venom.  I’ve only ever seen one other Sifu deliver power anywhere near the level that Steve was and that was on a video clip.  I was seeing it in the flesh.  When they stopped they both smiled and bowed.  Part of me, and I suspect I was not alone, was half expecting to see Adam carried off in a stretcher, but he quietly stood to one side looking none the worse for the experience.

Steve explained that many Tai Chi Masters throw people into crash mats stood against a wall.  He said that this doesn’t really do much besides giving the ‘thrower’ a chance to show off their skill.  By using a solid wall Steve explained that the person being pushed gains vital skills in being able to deal with the unknown, working under pressure, handling the fear and emotions that arise in combat and still maintain their structure, or at least they should if they don’t want to splat against the wall.

After a practical demonstration on how Tai Chi acclimatizes its practitioners for combat we then looked at some of the combat applications contained within the Tai Chi Long Form, specifically a section called ‘Grasp Sparrows Tail’.  Being right at the beginning of the form everyone in the group knew this section.

Firstly Steve drew our attention to how yin and yang are represented within this section and then showed us a few applications to work through.  Each of the applications kept us in constant contact with our partners, and Steve showed that as soon as contact is made a Tai Chi fighter seeks to take the opponent straight off balance.  Once the balance is taken your opponent has absolutely no chance of delivering any power.  At this point Steve demonstrated that a person is as weak as a baby.  The important factor is what we do at the initial point of contact with our opponent, the ‘Jeet’ point, which Steve said is where most fights are won or lost.  In his eyes the Jeet point is the most important part of any conflict, yet is a stage of combat that has little attention paid to it by most Martial Artists.  Many systems make a strong initial contact then loose it by disengaging. Tai Chi does exactly the opposite with its concept of ‘sticking’.  With the idea that as soon as contact is made the opponents balance is broken and that as long as the touch is maintained we can utilise the Tai Chi fighting strategies to keep them off balance.  This was a fundamental concept to understand when trying to utilise Tai Chi as a fighting art.

Steve went onto to demonstrate how the skill of being able to send incoming force to the feet fits into combat.  To keep it in the perspective of a fight Steve showed how it might work when dealing with multiple attackers.  By the end of the demonstration he’d had people hanging off his back, arms, from the left, coming straight at him and from the right, and sometimes all at the same time.  He showed that when working off the spiral from the feet it didn’t actually matter where they attacked from, or how, because they would simply bounce of his spiral.  Fighting a good Tai Chi fighter Steve said should be like trying to attack a spinning ball.

At the end of the session Steve said that it is essential to be principle led, and not to think of the Tai Chi applications as specific techniques, but merely possibilities of things that could happen.  The application to any given movement in the form is dependent on where the opponent is, how they are moving and which part of your body they make contact with.  As such there truly are no techniques within Tai Chi, merely infinite possibilities, all of which are dependent upon how your opponent decides to engage you.  So looking back at the philosophical remark Steve made in a previous session that “Tai Chi does you” it is its dynamic nature that makes it such a formidable fighting system.

Seeing Steve demonstrate the applications with a couple of pairs of hands on him, to me, matched the reality that I’d seen during my time in doorwork.  More often than not you’re not engaging one person by squaring up at a distance; instead you have multiple pairs of hands on you at extremely intimate ranges.  Real world fighting for me, outside the sporting arena, is a close quarter skirmish, and I sincerely believe that Tai Chi is a true skirmish art.  This session was a true look at the world of reality based combat.

Many people regard me to be somewhat of a hippy nowadays, what with the Shiatsu and Tai Chi, but truth be told I still absolutely adore the combative side of the arts more than anything else on the planet.  Every cell in my body just loves the physicality and intensity.  This morning’s session had everything that gets my juices flowing about Tai Chi.  Knowing that after lunch we’d be getting more of the same made it the longest time of the week as I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve desperately waiting to see what was under the tree.

Luckily the afternoon session came and Steve didn’t disappoint.  The lesson was simple and was covering just four concepts, four strategies to be precise, P’eng, Loi, Ji and Aun.  Steve explained that these are four strategies for dealing with the energy of the opponent.  The main portion of the lesson was spent physically implementing and training these strategies with partners.

We first looked more closely at P’eng, which Martin had presented earlier in the week.  Steve explained that P’eng is like putting up a fence that your opponent literally bounces off.  He added that one of the key points with P’eng is the timing.  You need to have your P’eng in place before your opponent finds their feet.  To train this skill Steve took us back to the ‘Springing Hands’ partner drill.

In the drill, to use P’eng, you need to put your structure in place just before your partner gets to their feet to root and push.  The idea is to get them to push without a root, which causes them to push themselves off of you.  Steve noted that we were not pushing, that is not P’eng and we are simply expanding like a balloon before they managed to root.  On my very first attempt I pushed.  There is a real urge to try and push your opponent, but instead you just give them something to push against before they get their footing.  Using the skill we’d learnt during the week of sending force straight down to the feet we should present a solid object for our partners to push against.  When you get this right it’s like trying to push against a wall whilst off balance and naturally you’re sent backwards.  The beauty of P’eng is that once off balance, the harder you push the faster you go flying backwards.  You really do feel quite silly flying backwards with the knowledge that it’s actually your own force that sent you on your way.

Next we looked at Loi.  Loi is referred to as ‘leading your opponent into nothingness’ in the classics.  I’d say it’s like trying to fight smoke.  It’s evasion, but with a twist.  I suppose it’s a bit like teasing.  You present your opponent with an opening and then let them in before catching them in the trap.  It was a very simple concept somewhat like Aikido being done on a microscopic level.  In my private lessons Steve has often mentioned the push hands tactic of ‘hiding your bones’ and when I’ve tried pushing with him I’m always lead into nothingness.  It’s amusing how at the end of ‘nothingness’ there always seems to be a choke or a lock or sometimes even a wall!

Ji was an interesting strategy that is one I think I’m a long way off mastering.  Going back to the softening process Steve had shown when covering the Internal System he demonstrated Ji.  When employing Ji you use your partners push to actually help you soften and give an extra bit of oomph into the pump of the feet.  Basically you let them coil you like a spring and then you give the energy back to them in a much more disagreeable manner than it was initially given to you. In order to be able to use Ji it is vital that you have a good structure to be able to store and compress their force, any weakness will collapse your own body before you can transmit it back into your opponent.

Finally we looked at Aun.  Aun is described in the classics as “stealing your opponents technique” and again makes use of the softening process used to access the internal structure.  As we’d continuously seen throughout the week, in order to be able to deliver power we first need to access the feet and this we’d learnt to do via the softening process that compresses the body weight down into the feet.  With Ji we use the force from an attacker to load our own feet, with Aun we use our own force to load our opponents feet.  At first this might seem like an odd thing to do, but Steve explained that what we do with Aun is to quickly put them in their feet and then release their body weight extremely quickly.  With P’eng we tried to catch them before they got into their feet, Aun puts them into their feet before they are actually ready.  Imagine what happens with a ball that is bounced against the floor this is exactly what happens in Aun.  The harder you bounce the ball the more it bounces back.  So all you actually do is bounce your opponent out of their feet.

The Four Strategies are extremely simple concepts that each requires great skill to put into action.  To be able to use any of them requires all of the components we’d examined at length during the week to be in place.  Each requires timing, distance, structure, mindset and flow which are all gained by studying the universal principles that sent our heads spinning on the first day.

This was a great days training that had pulled together all of the content that we’d studied over the week.  For me, although I hadn’t mastered anything, I felt like I’d seen the entire system of Tai Chi and felt briefly what it is like when all of its components click into place.  The ability to be engaged in ‘martial’ activities is an aspect that I believe is lacking in many Martial Arts practiced today, especially Tai Chi, but today’s session was probably the most practical days training I’d ever done and that left me a very happy bunny.

Day 6

The alarm on my phone signaled the start of the final day of training.  Getting up for the pre-breakfast training had become habitual and practicing within a group now felt like the norm.  I found this quite amazing thinking back to the beginning of the week where I’d felt so out of place practicing Tai Chi as part of the crowd.  If anything, I think my mind had just accepted and acknowledged the presence of the others and just carried on about its business.

Once breakfast had been devoured we were back in the field for the last day of training.  For the morning session I spilt off for another MMA session with Adam.

To begin with Adam started by looking at Takedowns again and how to defend against them by sprawling.  We paired off and started to look at the timing and distancing used to sprawl away from the takedown.  Again Adam used the drill to highlight how the internal structure is employed within the context of the scenario allowing us to use our posture to deliver power into our opponent and drive them into the floor.  Sprawling for me is a fabulous vehicle for showing the importance of the ‘Jeet’ point in combat and Adam demonstrated perfectly how to drive your body weight down into the person attempting the takedown.

Adam built on the sprawling drill by adding a transition to a rear choke.  This drill helped us build our mobility off the sprawl as we had to add timing and momentum into the equation.  This reiterated the point Steve had made earlier in the week about avoiding ‘dead’ moments and becoming sitting ducks.  I’ve found that many people will stop dead after a sprawl and that those who really make the sprawl work never ever loose momentum off it.  This section showed us how to capitalize on a seemingly defensive situation to gain a decisive position.

After the chokes we then looked at submissions from various positions.  We had a chance to play with Kimuras, Arm bars and chokes.  Firstly we applied them from the dominant position of a full mount and then moved on to breaking guard to gain the position to work the submission.  Then we had to work submissions from our backs.  Adam again drew on the importance of having a strong connected structure in order to be able to pull off the techniques.  At first we simply walked through the movement, but soon moved into a more dynamic and alive pace.

With a few submissions under our belts, being applied from various positions, Adam then took us through creating the opportunities to execute them, exploring the subtle shifts of posture to create the space to attack specific targets.  We also looked at how to transition between submissions and covered drills to make this an intuitive skill.  Again this drew on the Tai Chi principles of Yin and Yang and the ability to dynamically switch between the two.  Instead of fighting for the blocked submission we just flowed into another one.  Adam showed how defending against one submission can leave us open to another.

For the most part of the session we’d been primarily concerned with the upper body, so Adam finished by showing us some tactics for attacking the legs with a couple of submissions on the ankles.  These utilized breaking someone’s guard and sliding straight down to the ankle.  This ended a very concise and practical look at submissions and ground work, all using the principles that had been covered throughout the week.

I really enjoy ground work and submissions are definitely a weak area of my game.  This session gave me a lot of ideas on how to build my submission skills using the internal system to power them and more importantly, how to fit these into my overall repertoire.  It was always another high energy sweat up in the sun which everyone thoroughly enjoyed.

Over lunch there was a general sense of disbelief at just how quickly the week had gone.  The amount of information that had been transmitted and absorbed was immense yet the sense of overload I felt at the beginning of week had totally dissipated.  Everything covered had been systematic and structured so that everything flowed and was appropriate.  Alas it was with a heavy heart that we all headed back out to the field knowing that this was to be the last session of the course.

For the final lesson of the week Chris Rowen concluded his presentation of Goju Ryu.  As with Steve’s session yesterday this was a very simple ‘hands on’ session that built on all of the previous sessions Chris and the other Instructors had shared with us.

Firstly he showed us a simple kakie drill that was very similar to the Push Hands we do in Tai Chi.  He emphasised keeping our mind and body loose and free of tension saying that the purpose of kakie was to develop sensitivity and awareness.  We then moved into working basic strikes and locks off of the basic drill we’d been exploring.

Once we started working strikes off the kakie drill Chris was able to show us how everything works off of circles and spirals.  He used the concept to show us how to make use of openings to change the level, direction and angle of our attacks.  Chris also showed how it can be turned into kumite by just building off the attacks by following the opportunities that are presented.  This emphasized the importance of sensitivity and awareness and how tension and panic rob us off these vital attributes.

The kakie session informally moved into kumite.  Chris used this opportunity to expand on the concept of ‘stealing the opponents mind’ through distraction and disruption.  He said that once their mind has been stolen, so has their power.  The kumite begun with us squaring off with each other and randomly trying to land attacks that our partners were forced to work off.  It wasn’t long before we all started becoming more mobile giving Chris the chance to talk about the importance of distance and range.

Chris humorously went through the different ranges giving us the ‘he’s happy, I’m not’ and ‘I’m happy, he’s not’ model of comparison.  Naturally we all had a distinct leaning to the ‘I’m happy, he’s not’ range which was where all of the applications and short range strikes we’d learnt through the Kata coincidently came into play.  He again showed how attacking a persons fingers, hands, groin, legs, stomach and other nasty spots with short, sharp attacks can yield small but decisive windows of opportunity to take the fight.

This was the perfect ending to the course giving me an opportunity to put everything we’d learnt during the week into some free fighting.  I finished very sweaty with a big beaming smile on my face, which I think highlighted Chris’s closing comments.  Chris said that what was probably the most important aspect of the training was to keep it fun and enjoyable.   He finished saying it is that sense of enjoyment that keeps us training over the years.

Steve closed off the course by thanking all of the Instructors for their time and we finished with a group photo.  I’ve been trying to think of an epic conclusion to this write up, but I think the content of the weeks training experience speaks for itself.  Over the week I had the privilege of seeing the entirety of my art presented in full and the chance to immerse myself in it with like minded Martial Artists.  To sum up the weeks training I remember being asked at the airport waiting to come home what I was looking forward to most about getting back, and my reply was simply, “to get up and train tomorrow!”

The week was fantastic and magical, hard work and profound.  I’d like to thank Steve Rowe, Chris Rowen, Martin Gatter, Adam Lawrie, Palle Thoft Jensen, Ondra Musil and everyone else on the course for sharing their art with me.  I return feeling more of a Martial Artist than I went out, and for that you all have my eternal gratitude.  Me thinks I found the gems that I’d come to Czech to find!

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